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Cat in the Orchard

(originally posted October 13, 2010)

The compulsion to make art has been with us for 17,000 years. For most of that time, the foremost question asked of the artist (perhaps second only to where’s the rent) has been why do you do it ~ where does this unstoppable urge to create come from? It’s a fascinating question especially if you’ve never had the calling, but beware the loquacious artist ~ Picasso pops to mind ~ who can come up with what sounds like a dazzling answer to what is ultimately a goose chasing question.

“You might as well ask me why I get out of bed in the morning,” an artist friend once explained, to this day the most refreshingly honest answer I’ve heard. By and large, art is made by people because ~ excuse the double negative ~ they can’t not make it. Doesn’t matter whether the art they make is good or bad. In your or anyone else’s opinion. They make art because, just like getting up in the morning, there is simply no alternative for them. Even in an extreme case, like van Gogh, anybody out there really think he wouldn't have flicked the switch in exchange for a normal, but art free life? He couldn't, not didn't. And constant use of his messed up mental health by art critics the world over as an explanation of his work is not just a ruse, it’s an insult to his genius.

An infinitely more interesting question is why we need art, what we see in it that is so intrinsically different from what we see just walking around, living our lives. Surely art explains the world to us, but while we can’t argue that context is unimportant, don’t trust history alone for an answer as to why you respond so deeply to one artist’s work, while you are left cold by another’s. In any case, the historical “reasons” we make art change every few hundred (or thousand) years. Since we’ve been keeping track we’ve gone from religion (with God the Über curator) to documentation (Vermeer and the Camera Obscura onward) to a need to explore the psyche (Freud and the Surrealist Movement did a nice tango on this one). For the last few decades art has been obsessed with finding meaning in materialism ~ you can thank Andy Warhol for the soulless Jeff Koons generation. My point is that while context is important, something else is up with our fascination, our need to look at and experience art. Is it finding grace? Is it looking in the mirror? Is it seeing our worst fears exposed?

A few years ago I dragged the family to NYC to see a Gustav Klimt exhibit, 8 paintings and a 120 drawings, at the Neue Galerie, Ronald Lauder’s exquisite private museum on the edge of Central Park. Though one of the most published artists in history, endless squabbles over Klimt’s legacy has made viewing more than one painting at time nearly impossible. The exhibit did not disappoint, but what happened unexpectedly while I was there set me thinking about context in a whole new light. Starting out in poverty, Klimt trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, immediately gaining acceptance and public commissions by Emperor Franz Joseph I. But instead of following a proscribed career, in 1887 he founded the Vienna Secession, a controversial group that encouraged unconventional artistic expression, invited exhibits by foreigners, and published a manifesto that debunked the myth that any one artistic style ~ especially what was in vogue at the time ~ should rein supreme. In short, at the turn of a century that would see two world wars change the map of Europe and, not least, the direction of art forever, Klimt helped push the envelope. Even when briefly shunned by society ~ his work deemed pornographic by every quarter that had once supported him ~ he defied conventions of the day, broke from tradition and become one of the most successful artists of all time.

Towards the end of the day I found myself standing in front of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting, which had been purchased by Lauder for $135 million ~ the highest price ever paid for a single work at the time ~ depicts a beautiful, fragile Jewish woman engulfed in a gilded, intricately decorated world that we know from history was on the precipice of extinction. Lush, subdued color draws the viewer into a universe that cossets yet distinguishes the female form from the fabric of her history. Light skims off the surface of burnished gold leaf, while intricate ornamental detail is eloquently rendered with flowing sinuous lines. Egyptian, Byzantine, Japanese influences, arguably all present, are subsumed by techniques that speak to no known style at all. What seems a sharp edged nod to a Dürer engraving catches in the light and disappears, only to be replaced by a soft tonal mosaic that brings ~ of all people ~ the neo-impressionist Seurat to mind.

As I stood there, a nine-year-old girl who had pulled away from her mother in another gallery came to stand beside me. While all these thoughts were going through my mind, she shifted uncomfortably from side to side. Like it, I asked? Yeah, she said, gnawing at her sleeve, but why is she so sad? Is she, I countered, to which the girl’s eyes, which had been darting around the canvas, looked directly into mine and held for a good five count ~ eons for a nine year old. The only thing free of her body is her mind, she replied. A non-contextual response, to be sure, but she had nailed it. In that moment, somewhere between the two of us, Klimpt’s ghost stirred.

In a few week’s time the question of context will become particularly relevant as the studio mounts Susan Preston’s “One Button Off,” the last show of this exciting and transitional year for us. Susan is one of the most well known and ~ though she would be the last to admit it ~ beloved members of our community. She and her husband Lou have created, in Preston of Dry Creek Farm and Winery, a living agrarian document that eloquently tells a deeply political story which has been instrumental in helping to inform Sonoma County’s embrace of sustainability. The edible gifts of their working farm, which exist so successfully alongside their vineyards, winery and tasting room, have also helped expand a previously limited viticultural agenda for Sonoma that was up to now scarily Napa bound. If you’ve visited the winery, walked the grounds, been lucky to share in their hospitality on any Guadagni Sunday or at any one of a number of public events they host, you cannot have missed how a refined artistic presence infuses everything they do. We live in a county where great wealth has spawned many extremely beautiful wineries, but few speak so fully of an independent artistic vision.

What we haven’t yet seen, though it has been much anticipated, is a full viewing outside the framework of their family endeavors of Susan Preston’s work as an artist.

The one-woman show will consist of 14 pieces. The hallmarks of past work will be there ~ the use of wordplay and talisman; the almost mystical transformation of the most common materials ~ but there is a great deal more here as well. A sense of universal themes with rousing, if slightly disturbing narratives. Susan Preston has what I can only describe as a lovers gaze for the animal/people that live in her world, an understanding of sensuality as distinct from gender, a belief that a battered nature is still capable of rocking us to sleep at night. This is a world where fools are kings and art has all the power of the confessional.

The greatest thing about starting with the premise that art need not document anything other than itself is that it enables the viewer to cauterize the aesthetic experience, allowing all the blood to flow back into what you have in front of you. This, at the end of the day, is really all you need to react, feel, reject, or love a work of art. While it may be hard to separate the Susan Preston for whom all actions have consequences (the better to eat you my dear) with Susan Preston, the artist, go for it. The exhibit, which opens on November 10th will run through December. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a nine year old if you happen to have one lying around.



I see the moon (and) the moon sees me

(originally posted May 5, 2010) A few weeks ago, on the first real day of Spring, we co-hosted a baby shower in the Barndiva gardens for good friends of ours.  I was busy shooting in the kitchen for most of it, but every now and then I gazed out the window to enjoy the laughter rising from the long table we'd set beneath the still bare mulberry trees.  Four other women at the party ~ all from Healdsburg ~ were pregnant as well.  We are experiencing a veritable baby boom here in our little town.  At the end of the afternoon the expectant mother gave everyone small beeswax candles that we were told to light when she went into labor.  It was a thoughtful gift from a beautiful young woman about to become a new mother.

Seeing the candle on the counter a few days later, however, triggered a complex of emotions.  I'd just come from a meeting with Chef about our Mother's Day menu, which is probably why I paused to consider the rapid progression my thoughts took when I looked at the candle.  In the span of a few seconds I managed to move from 'all warm and fuzzy' ~ envisioning a magic circle of friends all spread out across town in our candlelit rooms, by virtue of our collective energy becoming a force field of positivity unto ourselves, to 'self involved' ~ what if no one called to tell me she'd gone into labor, I'd be left out of the magic circle, to 'worried' ~ what if her labor was a long one and the candle didn't last through the birth?

Sanguine to controlling to fearful ~ this is my MO when it comes to motherhood in general.  Since the day after my first child was born and the miracle of oxytocin had not worn off, until yesterday, when I spoke to youngest, in college 6,000 miles away, I go through the same personal zeitgeist: from happiness (to hear their voices) to suspicion (what do they want/need) to dread (are they ok? Is something wrong? What's happened?). I usually get back to happiness when they aren't around ~ thankfully love is my default setting with all three of them ~ but honest to God, nothing has ever screwed with my head like being a mother.

Fascinating subject, motherlove. And skewed quite differently depending upon whether we look at it from the viewpoint of the child, or the mother. I’ve been both and find the second half of the equation ~ being a parent ~ infinitely more fraught, if only because of the power it conveys which you are obligated to administer during their formative years. Being a parent is an early Bob Dylan song that you want to make wonderful sense out of, but ultimately mystifies you. Perhaps because I have the feeling I’ll never get it right, or that there is no right, or that what’s right one minute is capable of being turned on its head the next. And what’s really interesting (bordering on unsettling) is the fact that while we all seem to approach parenting with our own unique set of skills and expectations, at the end of the day there is a startling verisimilitude to motherhood, a DNA set of emotions that is able to transverse both culture and history. It seems to be rooted in the unlimited potential for nirvana or disaster our children’s very existence brings to bear ~ which always lies just beneath the surface.

As to being the child, while not confusing (you have after all, someone to blame or thank outside of yourself) it is infinitely more complex, capable of building your character, or destroying it. Whether you believe in what Freud called the "unshakable optimism" of knowing you are loved despite your faults, or lean more toward Sylvia Plath's visceral underbelly of "you are always there, 
tremulous breath at the end of my line, curve of water upleaping,
to my water rod, dazzling and grateful, touching and sucking,” motherlove, or lack of it, is the one true thing we really never get away from. Besides death.
Here’s my theory: If you’re very lucky in life, you get the mother you need, the one that makes you believe in yourself, but also never ceases to kick you in the ass when you need it most. But even if you aren’t lucky, and get an indifferent one, or dreadfully unlucky and get the awful abusive kind, chances are you will never really give up wanting her to be a mother of the first order, the one who truly loves you. That singular focus of attention is kismet to our souls from the moment we are born, controlling to a large extent our perception of ourselves, a divining force in molding our temperament. Live with it.
Picasso, who used his mother’s name throughout his life, depicted the relationship in the painting First Steps as one of interconnecting power surges, an impossible geometry that fights against itself, yet in its unnatural construction manages to be wholly organic. Berthe Morisot, on the other hand, painted as if she accepted the planned obsolescence whereby success can only be achieved when the child no longer needs the mother. The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

The first time I saw Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter Julie Manet, I related to the transitional use of color ~ the steely gray of the mother’s hair seemed to pour into the daughter’s dress, turning it a luminescent blue ~ a life affirming color. Looking at the same painting now, I can clearly see what I missed: the figure of the mother has had the life sucked out of her! The innocence of the daughters direct gaze does not negate her rising dominance over the smaller older woman, whose stare is in stasis, the heavy folds of her dress rooting her to the foreground, pulling her downward. And what’s with the colorless hand that looks like a cadaver’s? How had I missed that before? Perhaps because I was not yet a mother when I first viewed the painting.

Thankfully, my own experience does not jive with Morisot’s (in this work.) While there have been plenty of times I felt the rigors of parenting sucking the air out of the room, my children have more often than not been the only thing which kept me going long after I wanted to quit. Not because of their belief in me ~ I’m one of the lucky ones who thankfully did have a mother to do that ~ but, quite simply, because they make me laugh. We share the same sense of humor. When we are all together and the stars align we are capable of creating that rarest of human communities: a family that speaks the same language, shares the same values (most of which came from previous generations), trades in goodwill, and draws its strength from a deep well of loyalty. It's not always easy to get there however. Sometimes the stupidest things can derail our best intentions. While some families seen to get there by just hanging out, I suspect most of us have to work really hard at it.

When I was at ULCA as an undergraduate I took a seminar with the great L.A. Times book critic Robert Kirsch. Walking to class one day we got to talking about family and he dropped into the conversation, quite casually, that while he had more than one child, he really only liked one of them. How can you not like your kids, I asked, shocked to the core. You have to love them, he replied, there’s nothing written you have to like them. And, he added, if you make that a condition of your love, you saddle them with not being free to find out who they really are, without the judgment of whom you expect them to be constantly hanging over them. They are their own people, or should be, he concluded, and at the end of the day that’s what you need them to be. His use of the word ‘need’ instead of ‘want’ wasn’t intended to be pejorative, but empowering. Kirsch was very careful with language. I took note.

A lot has been said about the commercialization of Mothers Day that I agree with, but in the end I think it’s a wonderful opportunity that should not be lost, a chance to say thank you to someone who gave you life and, by hook or by crook, whether for a moment or a lifetime, had a hand in keeping you alive. Whether you actually say I love you or just pass the ketchup doesn’t matter. So long as you don’t use the time to settle old grudges or try and change the family dynamic, there is joy to be found in the quiet moments of time just spent together, especially if you listen to them echo. There is truth~ if not god~ to be found in the details, because details are what ultimately define us. Not the grand gesture, but a touch, a conversation, a knowing look. And hey, in case you need it said out loud, this holds true even if your mother is physically gone now, like mine. That’s the beauty of this profound connection. I spoke to my mum just this morning. Good thing, too. She told me not to get too heavy on the Freud.

There is a wonderful poem by Shamus Heaney that ends

So while the parish priest at her beside Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying, And some were responding and some were crying, I remembered her head bent towards my head, Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives Never closer the whole rest of our lives

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